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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Relationships boost effectiveness of humanitarian aid after a disaster

Cameron Connor is now studying at Whitman College

On two three-month visits to Nepal in 2015 and 2016, Cameron Conner found that relationships make a difference in the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.

“Relationships make ‘fair aid’ possible,” he said.

He and friend Grant Gallagher went before beginning study at Whitman College to evaluate relief efforts of the nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake there in April 2015.

As co-founder and vice president of CCF, Cameron wanted to know if the immediate aid they sent had been effective and how to spend remaining funds for recovery.  They also initiated and participated in some long-term recovery projects.

“We did the evaluation to ensure transparency and accountability to donors and beneficiaries,” he said.

In his 19 years, he has visited Nepal nine times since he was five months old.  He went with his parents, Denise Attwood and Ric Conner, co-owners of Ganesh Himal Trading Co., a wholesale fair-trade business that sells to about 300 U.S. and Canadian companies.

CCF grew out of relationships with crafters in Nepal, and their desire to support a clinic in the village of Baseri and provide scholarships to educate girls.

After graduating from West Valley High School in June 2015, Cameron and Grant took a 10-week course on how to evaluate aid and wrote evaluation guidelines and the proposal. They hiked at Mt. Rainier to prepare for hiking in the Himalayas.

They spent October to December 2015 and then February to May 2016 in Nepal, working with large- and small-scale relief organizations.  Then they spent three weeks working at refugee camps in Northern Greece.

Their fall tasks were to evaluate use of CCF aid, interview representatives of large aid organizations, survey relief in remote villages and learn earthquake-resistant building for the clinic, school and housing in Baseri.

In Kathmandu, 1) they interviewed workers with Mercy Corps, U.S. AID, IsrAID and Global Giving; 2) they interviewed friends to whom CCF had wired funds for immediate aid for food, clothing and temporary shelters, and 3) they investigated earthquake-resistant building techniques, including earth-bag construction using sturdy sacks filled with local soil.

Then they trekked three weeks to mountain villages in areas with no roads. Their guides were long-time friends, Ram Karki, and his son Pradeep Karki, 19.  They acted as cultural and linguistic interpreters—from Tamang to Nepali to English.

Cameron grew up with Pradeep and considers him a brother.  They often chat on Facebook.  Denise and Ric helped pay for his education.

Cameron and Grant interviewed village leaders to learn what aid reached them and what they still needed.  Back in Kathmandu, they wrote reports for the CCF board before going to Baseri for two weeks to introduce earth-bag building with two homes as a trial.

It was hard to do in the remote area because some materials had to be transported in and India had a blockade on oil and building materials.  They also had to train unskilled local labor. Families now live in the two earth-bag test homes on the clinic land.

Returning to Spokane Dec. 18, they spent two months finishing their report and raising funds to rebuild a school and the CCF clinic.  With presentations to five Rotary chapters in Spokane, they raised $8,000, adding to what remained of nearly $200,000 CCF has raised for immediate relief and rebuilding.

From December to mid-February 2016, Cameron and Grant visited by Skype with friends in Baseri to follow progress on the earth-bag homes.

“Our report evaluated projects in each village and analyzed future steps.  We looked at how CCF could proceed as an aid organization,” Cameron said.  “Our strength is in long-term community development, rather than distributing blankets and materials, because relationships are our greatest strength.”

Their 52-page report is now online at consciousconnectionsfoundation.org.

They report that key needs in earthquake relief are for warmth, shelter, food, community infrastructure and emergency communication. 

“Beneficiaries said aid was equitable and effective,” Cameron said. “CCF arrived and supplied aid often before other aid groups came.  We provided for needs of those most at risk.”

CCF leaders progressed from immediate needs to long-term reconstruction and recovery, working with trusted local NGOs.

“Long-term assistance encourages capacity building,” they added.  “CCF selected communities based on who could best use resources and on relationships to ensure responsible partnerships. Relationships are key to ownership of and responsibility for projects in local beneficiary communities and among CCF leaders. 

Cameron believes aid may be flawed if it gives something for nothing, and a business model gives ownership, so people have a stake in it.

In both Nepal and Greece, they learned how effective fair trade and relationships are “in bringing mutual benefits and a power dynamic beyond one person giving to another,” he said. 

They listed areas to improve in the need for 1) consistency in ownership of projects; 2) understanding CCF’s role in relief to avoid duplicating other NGOs; 3) awareness of potential negative impacts, and 4) having more data for selecting communities.

They recommend that as a new aid organization CCF needs to learn international guidelines, coordinate with other NGOs, understand community dynamics and cultivate more relationships.

 In the spring, Cameron and Grant focused on rebuilding the school and clinic. Rotary funds covered the $7,000 it cost to build a four-room K-3 school, which was rebuilt by last April. 

To rebuild a seven-room clinic on the site near the old clinic, they used pre-fabricated Styrofoam/concrete panels over a reinforced steel frame.  It resists up to a 9.0 earthquake, has thermal insulation and is fire-resistant.  Costs included building a new road so trucks could deliver materials from Kathmandu.

While Cameron and Grant were in Baseri, they helped a local contractor lay the clinic’s foundation and contracted with villagers to build it. Buying land, and building the clinic and road cost $53,000.  The building was completed by June 2016.

CCF raised $193,400 since 2015 for earthquake relief.  As a new nonprofit, they were limited to $50,000, but IRS granted an exception for relief.  After immediate aid, rebuilding the school and clinic, and other projects, CCF has $70,482 left, including a $30,000 endowment for future clinic expansion and expenses. The rest is being held some for commitments to rebuilding projects, supplementing teachers’ salaries, community earthquake preparedness and post-quake residual problems from landslides during the monsoon season.

“Recovery has a long way to go.  Some villages rebuilt more than others,” Cameron said.  “Six months after the quake, people were still in shock and living at a subsistence level.  They needed to plant crops and rebuild waterways. 

“Reconstruction after the quake will take decades.  Villagers’ lives will be hard for a long time, while Kathmandu is nearly back to normal,” he said.

On May 3, Cameron and Grant went to northeastern Greece to help Third Wave Volunteers at a refugee camp for people fleeing violence in Syria. They knew of the program, because it had supplied CCF 1,000 solar lights to distribute in Nepal. 

“For five weeks, we helped build 600 wooden tent platforms, so flooding wouldn’t destroy refugees’ belongings and to protect them from rats and snakes on the ground,” Cameron said. “We also helped build community shelters.” 

Over the years, he has traveled with his parents to places “off the beaten track” in Eastern, Central and Western Europe, Peru, Morocco, Turkey, Australia and Mexico where they have connected with local people.

These travels gave him “an appreciation for how to help people in need” and “how to walk in the world with empathy as I interact with people outside my culture.” 

At Whitman, Cameron is studying communication, sociology and rhetoric, and awaiting future adventures and opportunities to engage with people.

For information, call 499-3320 or email connercn@whitman.edu.





Copyright © April 2017 - The Fig Tree